The face of change
Fighting sexism in French wine
Ginger Rose Clark
Illustration: Julie Andriamampianina
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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Early on a Sunday morning, at a time when I’d usually be having my first sip of coffee, I stepped into a French town hall for what looked like a fairly standard wine fair: ahead of me lay rows of tables laden with bottles, ice buckets and spittoons. People, glasses in hands, wandered from one table to the next, tasting as they went. After a closer look, it soon became clear that, unlike at a classic wine fair, the winemakers behind every stand were women: this was the very reason I’d made the journey from Paris.
Wine fairs might well be something of an institution in France, but one with a female focus is a very new concept. Take for example Canons, a fair which brings together women in natural wine. It was founded in 2019 by journalist Elodie Louchez and winemaker Marie Carroget.
Talking about the industry, Louchez says: “Alcohol is already a problem in itself; add women into the equation and it’s a whole other matter.”
She co-founded Canons with Carroget after they attended many wine fairs together and realised how problematic these trade events can be for women.
“At wine fairs,” she says, “there’s inevitably a moment when things get out of control because people have been drinking. That’s when sexism makes an entrance.”
I can corroborate. Just a week after my Sunday jaunt to taste wine by women, I visited one of Paris’ largest annual fairs. The contrast was striking. In the space of just a couple of hours, an expert described a delicate wine to me as “feminine”, a stranger made a lewd “joke” about fairs being the new place to pick up women and a winemaker quite obviously dumbed down his spiel while explaining how he made wine to me. All three individuals were men.
For women winemakers, attending fairs can mean being overlooked, ignored or spoken down to as well as having to deal with the highly competitive side of selling. Louchez gives me an example of one of Canons’ winemakers. When people would approach her at fairs, it was to ask her about her apricot juice or olive oil; people would then turn to her husband to discuss the wine. Plenty of similar examples abound.
Louchez makes it clear that Canons wasn’t created to take a stance against men, but to give credit where credit is due.
“Talking to women winemakers made us realise that we need to highlight female winemakers for who they are and for what they have accomplished,” she says. As women, they’ve likely had to fight harder than men to get where they are today.
An Age-Old Problem
In France, 30% of winemakers are women according to statistics published earlier this year by the French government. It makes viticulture the agricultural sector with the joint-highest number of women, along with sheep farming, in France. Nonetheless, it can be an incredibly difficult industry for women to work in: problems range from not being taken seriously by male counterparts, to struggling to secure land and bank loans.
These problems have a long back-story. For centuries, France’s women were excluded from the world of wine. They weren’t allowed to take part in important tasks such as pruning and were forbidden from entering cellars based on the belief that they could make wine turn sour if they were menstruating.
To top off sexist mentalities, the agricultural system didn’t recognise them as professionals. Until the second half of the 20th century, it was rare for women to be farmers in their own right. More often than not, women farmers were farmers’ wives who worked hard on the farm but didn’t have an official status.
Isabelle Perraud, of Domaine des Côtes de la Molière in the Rhône-Alpes explains rather concisely: “[Women] were indispensable but not recognised.”
She talks from first-hand experience, having herself worked without an official status for 20 years. Change slowly started to happen from the 1970s onwards. However, it was only in 1999 that an associate status called “Conjointe collaboratrice” was introduced, giving farmers’ spouses the right to a pension as well as other forms of social protection.
From the very start, Louchez and Carroget’s vision for Canons went beyond selling wines. It was important to create a space where women in wine could meet and talk.
“It’s a bit like a family,” says Louchez. “We’ve got seasoned winemakers and younger ones, so that they can exchange ideas.”
Making space for women
During the dinner which takes place before the fair, winemakers get to mingle, discuss their work and the practicalities of the job. They might, for example, compare ways in which they work with tractors – as a tool designed by men for men, it can require women to adapt their practice.
Just three editions in, Canons is a success. It has become a support network for winemakers, many of whom stay in contact with one another all year round. Plus, Louchez says she is now flooded with requests from other women winemakers wanting to join.
For a long time Perraud worked for associations in the Beaujolais and repeatedly came up against the fact it’s a male-centric world. She took matters into her own hands by setting up the Instagram account @payetonpinard, which condemns sexual harrassment and sexism in the world of wine. The account posts anonymous stories that women have sent her. These posts lay bare the sexism and, in more extreme cases, the sexual violence that they have experienced while working in the industry.
Showing the true face of systemic sexism
The wine industry is not an isolated entity. This year, the feminist collective NousToutes carried out a survey amongst 3,500 women who have filed an official complaint, or tried to, against acts of gender-based or sexual violence. 66% of respondents reported that the police had badly dealt with their case (including attempts to dissuade the victim from filing their complaint). In the face of these shortcomings, part of
@payetonpinard’s aim is for women in the wine industry to feel like they are supported and believed. Perraud has even enlisted the help of her friend, the lawyer Eric Morain, who gives free preliminary legal advice, where wanted, to the women who contact the account.
With @payetonpinard Perraud also seeks to debunk the male gaze: she regularly calls attention to the sexist imagery used by people in the wine industry. It’s an issue that Louchez had also touched upon in our conversation when she said: “Women are still being used as a sales pitch to sell wine.”
There are plenty of wine labels which depict overly sexualised women, often part or fully naked, and sometimes paired with sexist messaging or slogans. Perraud gives the example of a wine by Marc Soyard with a label which showed a naked woman in a cask with the phrase “GHB pour pécho” meaning “GHB to pull” (GHB is a drug known to be used in spikings by rapists). Created by men and for men, it’s a kind of imagery which is harmful and has huge ramifications.
“These labels promote the culture of rape and trivialise violence against women,” she says. She’s right.
Perraud has counter-reacted by creating feminist labels for her wines Balance Ta Bulle and Brute de Cuve.
“When you put one of my bottles on the table, it starts a discussion and raises awareness: I’m saying no to sexism,” she says.
Creating new conversations
Perraud is not the only woman to create feminist wine labels. Vins & Volailles, a female-led company based in Paris, has created a whole range of militant natural wines that address various social issues including misogyny, transphobia, lesbophobia and more: they donate 7% to associations and charities that are tackling the issues in question. These women are not only reversing the narrative, but they are also having a material impact by supporting feminist causes.
Belgian author Sandrine Goeyvaerts has unpicked the problems of the wine industry in a book entitled Manifeste pour un vin inclusif (a manifesto for inclusive wine). In it, she explores the sexist, racist, classist, homophobic and ableist faces of the world of wine in France, in an attempt to understand where the inequalities come from and how we can redress the balance. She highlights that language is at the base of many of these problems.
Published in early September this year, the book is already in its second print run after selling out in October. The manifesto, Goeyvaerts says, has found its audience, but, on the flip side, it has also sparked reactions of another nature. Men have contacted her saying that her book is scandalous, that they would never read it or that it makes no sense. She has also received some more aggressive messages and insults. It proves a point:
“The fact that people have had such a strong reaction shows that I’m hitting a nerve,” she says. “If it weren’t a valid topic, the book would have gone unnoticed.”
It’s also interesting to note that, while the book has received a lot of press coverage, it has been largely ignored by France’s wine media. For her, the wine media has missed an opportunity to open up a conversation, but she’s not surprised: it’s symptomatic of the industry. Currently the gatekeepers are most often white men, she explains, and they won’t be the ones who are going to bring about change.
Goeyvaerts jokes that revolutions start with the people, not with those in power. It may be something of a cliché, especially when talking about France, but perhaps it has an ounce of truth in it. Louchez and Perraud had both talked to me about the power of sorority. By standing together in solidarity with other women, individuals like Goeyvaerts, Perraud, Louchez and Carroget are leading the way and might finally bring about the revolution that will turn the sexist tables.
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